Before I fell asleep last night, my wife Jody read aloud to me from her copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna. The passage she chose was a diary entry that opened:
“Tonight’s news: the Allies broke open the dikes along the Netherlands coast, letting in the open sea and drowning thousands of German soldiers in the flood. Like the Azteca opening dikes to drown Cortés and his men on the shores of Lake Tenochtitlan. But fiction is nonsense, the war is real. Tomorrow the farmers of Walcheren will wake to see a tide standing over their crops, the floating corpses of their cattle, every tree in the land scalded dead by the salt on its roots. The glory of war is so frequently disappointing.”
This morning I woke not to scalded spring flowers but to read a story in The New York Times entitled “In New Officers’ Careers, Peace Is No Dividend.” The story focuses on the hopes and aspirations of a new crop of second lieutenants freshly graduated from West Point. They have begun their military careers at a time when our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has nearly ended, thus depriving them of the combat experience they both crave and recognize as necessary for promotion.
In this age, like so many earlier times and sadly many more to come, we are surrounded by war. Although I am not so naive as to think we can survive without a military force, I find myself pausing all the time to consider the cost we continue to pay for our pact with the devil. In the Times story, young second lieutenants are already planning alternative routes to success and promotion when we are no longer engaged in active wars where they can get their tickets punched.
These young kids — still emotionally closer to being boys and girls than mature men and women — appear to look at war as little more than a chance to get notches on their pistol handles and a leg up on the next rank. Being young, they have little historical perspective and no realistic idea of the costs in human life and national treasure that warfare entails. It’s sad that their military lessons have not included a foray into the ethical magnitude of their career choice which might allow them the vantage point of stepping back and realizing what they are giving up on a grander scheme in order to learn something limited only to what’s in sight on the tactical level. Only time has the chance to teach them the ultimate futility and personal diminishment that they are destined for. Better that they should be graduating as teachers destined for inner cities. Better still that they should have spent more time reading the Sermon on the Mount than military theorists trying to grope their way through the fog of war.
I have known a number of young soldiers then and now who along with their parents have taken great pride in their “accomplishments.” Of course, there has also always been the “chicken hawk” brigade of commentators and enthusiasts who first look for military solutions and have heartily rooted the unwary on. These are the ones who go home each night to their families and sleep in their secure beds. These are the ones who spout bellicose language but have never even donned a Boy Scout uniform let alone an olive drab one.
If any of these young warrior graduates lead long and productive lives and don’t end up at Walter Reed or in some rehab center learning to walk again on prosthetics, perhaps they will have achieved some perspective on their choices. Perhaps, even, there might come at some point in the future some semblance of wisdom. For too many, though, their lives will end up at the wrong end of a barrel or in a wheelchair if they’re lucky. In the end, what’s the value of an old uniform, such as the one that hangs in my closet decorated with the bling of medals, that is a grim reminder that one took lives rather than saved them,that one’s boot was once on the back of the neck of another human being rather than walking astride that same person en route to a happier place.
How do you convince a young person that the warrior’s path leads to the end, rather than to the beginning? I attended the funeral a couple of years back of a young man who had been blown up in Iraq. I never knew him, but I was compelled to attend. The service was held in the gym where this young person had played basketball just a few years earlier. I was there early and watched the officers in charge, sharply dressed and spit polished, prepare for the ceremony. I talked with one who thanked me for my service nearly fifty years ago. I just listened and saw the faces of other young men who now reside on The Wall. Like the young man in the gym, their lives are over. The lives of their parents, siblings and loved ones were forever changed. Loves had never blossomed, careers never taken off,children never born, old age never savored. As simple as it seems, all there was that echoed through this gym and countless others, not to mention named and unnamed battlefields, field hospitals, and the dark alleys of despair and suicide, was the sound of silence.
I have just finished a class on the origins of World War I. As you read Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece The Guns of August, you are constantly reminded of the folly of war. In a succinct quote, she summarizes so much: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” One person in the class wondered about a parallel universe where the war had just fizzled out,no sides declared victor, all combatants exhausted with the carnage and horror, a stalemate that might have taken all of us on a different route and away from World War II and the resulting Cold War and post-Cold War we have lived through. We’ll never know,of course, what other kinds of ways we could have annihilated one another. Tuchman again is prescient: “Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced.”
My war produced The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a series of unrelated memories about a platoon of soldiers during the Vietnam War. One is entitled “The Lives of the Dead.” In it, O’Brien remembers his first encounter with a dead body, his childhood sweetheart, who had died from a brain tumor. In Vietnam, O’Brien says his fellow soldiers keep their dead comrades alive by telling stories about them. In listening to these stories, O’Brien realizes he has been keeping his childhood love alive by telling stories about her. We all learned how to carry things that we would just have soon never picked up in the first place.
So as I read these stories, I go back to an old quote from Hemingway where he rants about the stupidity and crime of war. He wrote these words following World War I. They are just as apt today as they were then. Someone should have read it and done a great service to the new second lieutenants at their West Point right of passage:
“They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason. Hit in the head you will die quickly and cleanly, even sweetly and fittingly except for the white blinding flash that never stops, unless perhaps it is only the frontal bone or your optic nerve that is smashed, or your jaw carried away, or your nose and cheek bones so you can still think but you have no face to talk with. But if you are not hit in the head you will be hit in the chest, and choke in it, or in the lower belly, and feel it all slip and slide loosely as you open, to spill out when you try to get up; it’s not supposed to be so painful but they always scream with it, it’s the idea I suppose, or have the flash, the slamming clang of high explosive on a hard road and find your legs are gone above the knee, or maybe just below the knee, or maybe just a foot gone and watch the white bone sticking through your puttee, or watch them take a boot off with your foot a mush inside it, or feel an arm flop and learn how a bone feels grating, or you will burn, choke and vomit, or be blown to hell a dozen ways, without sweetness or fittingness; but none of this means anything. No catalogue of horrors ever kept men from war. Before the war you always think that it’s not you that dies. But you will, die, brother, if you go to it long enough.” (Hemingway On War)
This is the face of WWI warfare and death, not so much unlike what we’ve read about in Iraq and Afghanistan and certainly Vietnam. Boots on the ground warfare is far different, though, from the brave new world of high-tech video drone warfare, where operators are thousands of mile away and who get to come home each night with clean hands to family, a warm home and the security of their own beds. This is the warfare of the future where young second lieutenants, deprived and disappointed at not being able to “prove” their manhood on the field, can perhaps find a new way to satisfy some of their blood lust.